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Tuning Aristotle: An Applied Model of Emotions for Interactive Dramatic Structures

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This paper proposes a class-based model of emotions that is built on the original Aristotelian separation of pity and fear, supplemented by fiero as a third class for interactive media and video games. It shows how this tripartite model can aid design processes for dramatically complete games without privileging certain parts of the dramatic structure over others, and how it can offer a holistic and testable emotional playing experience.
Tuning Aristotle: An Applied Model of Emotions for!
Interactive Dramatic Structures
J. Martin
Mediadesign University of Applied Sciences, Duesseldorf, Germany
This paper proposes a class-based model of emotions that is built on the
original Aristotelian separation of pity and fear, supplemented by fiero as a
third class for interactive media and video games. It shows how this tripar-
tite model can aid design processes for dramatically complete games with-
out privileging certain parts of the dramatic structure over others, and how
it can oer a holistic and testable emotional playing experience. Further-
more, it provides the theoretical framework to solve a problem introduced
by interactivity and player agency into traditional empathy dynamics.
Keywords: game design, emotions, dramatic structure
Two prominent aspects that define the interactive playing experience are motivational
and emotional involvement. The first aspect is experience as expertise—developing
skills, knowledge, understanding, and attitude toward mastery and competitive per-
formance through motivational involvement. The second aspect is experience as
awareness—perceiving ongoing events with and through emotional involvement. This
paper focuses on the latter, specifically on emotion design in dramatically complete
video games, i.e., games that contain a story development arc, a character develop-
ment arc, and a player development arc. !
Emotion design for dramatically complete games, in many if not most cases,
starts o with the requirements of the story development arc. From there, ludological,
aesthetic, and mechanical elements are created to support these requirements, sup-
plemented by emotions for the character development arc and the player develop-
ment arc, the latter primarily fueled by the game’s reward system. Thus, emotion de-
sign in games is often dominated by story requirements, and particularly emotions
from the player development arc are often not as well-integrated as they should be.
Moreover, player agency interferes with a range of emotions that are important for the
character development arc, so that these cannot be fully experienced by the player.!
This paper discusses the categorization of emotions into three classes that can
be applied to the game design process; how these classes can be balanced, both with
respect to each other and with respect to the agency dilemma; and how the emotions
from these classes can be integrated into the dramatic structure of a dramatically
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J. Martin
complete game to provide the player with an emotionally rich, holistic playing experi-
As well-researched as human emotions are, their categories [1][2], functions [3], and
relations to neighboring human experiences like mood and temperament [4][5] are, by
and large, still debated. But it is undisputed that emotions influence behavior and have
psychophysiological eects that include adaptation and appraisal [6][7], cognition [8],
and motivation [9]. Categories and models resulting from this corpus of research can
inform and inspire design decisions for interactive narratives in games only to a de-
gree; they are too unwieldy to be applied with any measure of practicability. Thus, to
create a set of practical design parameters for player, player character, and non-player
character emotions, the much older and simpler model of emotions from Aristotle’s
Poetics is adopted.!
In this section, Aristotle’s model of emotions is discussed and updated to ad-
dress a range of emotions from the player development arc that do not apply to Greek
Tragedy, but apply to interactive media, especially video games.!
2.1 The Aristotelian Classes of Emotion
In the sixth chapter of his Poetics, Aristotle posits that Greek Tragedy “eects through
pity and fear the catharsis of these emotions [10].” (The catharsis hypothesis is not
discussed in this paper.) Aristotle’s rationale to pick pity and fear from the emotional
palette can be deduced from his definition of tragic heroes as human beings who
must not be “superhuman” but have flaws that make them human and bring about
their downfall. Against this background, the audience is supposed to pity the hero and
to fear that they could face a similar fate themselves someday. This delineates the dif-
ferences between these two emotions, which are defined as classes for the purposes
of this paper. On the one hand, emotions from the fear class are directly experienced
by the audience by way of seeing themselves in the situation of the character or char-
acters. On the other hand, emotions from the pity class are indirectly experienced
through empathy with the character or characters. With these characteristics as a
starting point, both classes warrant a closer look in the context of game design. !
2.2 The Fear Class
Following the outlined characteristics of the two classes, emotions from the fear class
are defined as emotions that can be directly triggered through visual, auditory, and
kinesthetic [11][12] design elements. Collecting emotions from research into emotional
categories, this class can comprise fear, joy, happiness, amusement, awe/wonder,
sadness, sorrow, melancholy, nostalgia, anxiety, terror, dread, disgust, nausea, or re-
vulsion. These emotions correspond to Aristotle’s definition of fear as the fear of facing
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Tuning Aristotle
a similar fate as the protagonist. Through dramatically and aesthetically well-executed
design elements, the player does face the fate of the hero at the point of play. !
As an example, this design strategy for emotion-rich video games is most
prominently applied in horror and survival-horror games. While playing Silent Hill [13],
The Suering [14], or Dead Space [15], players experience emotions from the fear
class directly through visual, auditory, and kinesthetic design elements, the latter—in
case of a gamepad—augmented with vibration and pulsation eects.!
2.3 The Pity Class
Following the outlined characteristics of the two classes again, emotions from the pity
class are defined as emotions that can only be experienced by the player through em-
pathy; these emotions cannot be triggered directly through visual, auditory, or kines-
thetic design elements. Again, collecting emotions from research into emotional cate-
gories, this class can comprise pity, compassion, worry (for loved ones), love, con-
tempt, anger/wrath, outrage, hate, admiration/adoration, envy, jealousy, resentment,
grief, or bitterness. These emotions correspond to Aristotle’s definition of pity as the
pity for the hero. Here, it is dramatically and aesthetically well-executed game charac-
ters who can let the player feel these emotions through empathy, and these emotions
are not necessarily restricted to the point of play.!
Games with well-designed characters, e.g., the Mass Eect trilogy [16], The Last
of Us [17], or Gone Home [18], can create strong empathic reactions in the player that
correspond to the emotions from this class. As the case of Gone Home shows, these
characters do not even have to be “present” in the game as game character models;
when dramatically well-designed, they even trigger empathic reactions in the player
when these emotions are merely related through letters, notes, and other elements
from the world narrative [19].!
However, it is the pity class where, as mentioned, a formidable challenge is in-
troduced by interactive games, where the protagonist is both the player character and
the player avatar which represents the player’s actions. Dramatically complete games
invite the player to “identify” with the hero, and for the fear class, this identification can
make the experience of its respective emotions even more powerful. For the pity
class, though, triggering emotions from this class through empathy with the protago-
nist no longer works because it is not possible to empathize with oneself in general or
have pity with oneself in particular (except in the form of self-pity, which is a dierent
emotion [20]). A solution for this dilemma, which has further ramifications, is discussed
in the third section.!
2.4 The Fiero Class
In non-interactive media, there is a range of emotions which, in most cases, do not
operate on the player directly like the emotions from the fear class, but indirectly as
part of the pity class through empathy with characters. Collecting emotions from re-
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J. Martin
search into emotional categories once more, these are the emotions of triumph, relief,
jubilation, satisfaction, pride, gratitude, confidence, hope, guilt, remorse, shame, em-
barrassment, disgrace, regret, humility, disappointment, frustration, or despair. In con-
trast to non-interactive media, however, video games can trigger emotions from this
range directly along interactive play in ways that constitute this range as a class of its
own. Similar to emotions from the fear class, they can be experienced by the player
directly—not through situational awareness, though, but through successful or unsuc-
cessful player actions.!
As a label for this class, “guilt” would certainly be the best fit in accordance with
Aristotle’s argument on Greek Tragedy and the Poeticsoverall mood. Yet, to pursue
more positive connotations, this paper proposes “fiero” as a label for this third class of
The term is based on the concept of fiero as introduced by Nicole Lazzaro [21]
[22]. According to Lazzaro, fiero represents the overwhelming feeling of accomplish-
ment that includes emotions like triumph, pride, or relief when players, through their
own player actions, have overcome a major obstacle, triumphed in the face of adversi-
ty, or won a huge victory. This can be extended to its opposite, the experience of neg-
ative emotions like frustration, regret, or humility, when players have failed to over-
come an obstacle; let characters, non-player characters, or other players down; or lost
the game. In interactive media and video games in particular, emotions from the fiero
class can be experienced as a direct consequence of the player’s own actions and
As sketched above, there exists an interference problem in interactive games with re-
gard to the pity class. In non-interactive media like novels or movies, the audience
empathizes with the hero and experiences the whole range of emotions that are part
of the pity class. This empathic operation no longer works in dramatically complete
games when the hero is both the player character in terms of narrative, and the player
avatar in terms of interactivity and player representation. Suggested by the narrative
structure and supported by the interactive structure, the player is invited to “identify”
with the hero. This shift in player perception from empathy to identification is support-
ed by findings that players display more prosocial behavior or less prosocial behavior
in their in-game actions and decisions as a direct function of identification with a more
benevolent or a more malevolent protagonist, respectively [23]. Thus, this shift pro-
hibits the operational dynamics of empathy on which the experience of emotions from
the pity class traditionally relies. One cannot have pity with oneself, only self-pity, and
several other emotions from the pity class would work in equally unintended ways,
among them self-contempt, self-love, or self-admiration. Others, still, do not work at
all, among them self-envy, self-grief, or self-jealousy.!
This, in turn, gives rise to the player agency dilemma. This dilemma can be illus-
trated with the help of a heroine in a historical drama who must choose between her
fiancée, whom she loves, and her career, which she aspires to. When this heroine
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Tuning Aristotle
chooses one of these two options herself, the player can empathize and pity her for
sacrificing either her love or her career. But when this heroine is both the player char-
acter and the player avatar and it is the player who makes the decision, this can no
longer work—because, as discussed, players cannot empathize with themselves.
Thus, the dynamics of empathy and interactivity preclude that players can experience
agency and empathy at the same time in the context of their own actions and deci-
sions. (As such, this adds to the more comprehensive design challenge in dramatically
complete games to simultaneously provide player agency and a tightly woven “roller
coaster” experience.)!
Set upon this challenge, game designers will find interesting and sophisticated
solutions. But there is a design strategy that is simple, well-known, and almost univer-
sally applied, namely the use of major supporting characters as stand-ins for the pro-
tagonist. By and large, this solution is employed for reasons not pursued in this paper,
notably the relief of the player from the “burden of tragedy [24],” a burden the game
should not impose on players directly to prevent them from crossing “the fragile
boundary that separates pleasure from pain” [25]. This design strategy can also be
applied to overcome the agency dilemma. Events that trigger emotions from the pity
class should not happen to the protagonist. Instead, they should happen to non-player
characters or hero NPCs—a term proposed by game writer Chris L’Etoile [24]—to
whom the protagonist, and with it the player, has become emotionally attached. As an
example, when a beloved character dies as a dramatic necessity, it should not be a
character beloved by the player character, but a character beloved by a hero NPC.
That way, the player can empathize with the hero NPC’s grief. This is both a quick fix
and a viable solution for the player agency dilemma. The use of hero NPCs restores
the dynamics of empathy and allows the player to experience the full range of emo-
tions from the pity class without interference from player agency.!
For the purposes of this paper, a dramatically complete game is defined as a game
with a full set of arcs, consisting of a story development arc, a character development
arc, and a player development arc. The story development arc advances through ef-
fectively placed dramatic events from traditional Western narrative structures, e.g.,
screenplay structures [26], or non-traditional and non-Western narrative structures,
e.g., kishōtenketsu [27] or jo-ha-kyū [28]. The character development arc is an inner
journey the player character goes through, often accompanied by an outer journey. It
evolves along dramatic elements from well-known or lesser-known journey structures,
among them the hero’s journey [29][30], nostos [31][32], or quest [33]. The player de-
velopment arc confronts the player with a progression of well-placed and well-paced
challenges to achieve mastery and win or beat the game. Into this dramatic structure,
the three classes of emotion need to be integrated in a balanced way.!
Story requirements, as stated, often dominate emotion design for dramatically
complete games. Applying the three classes of emotion to the design process oers
an alternative approach as a remedy. Just like plotting learning curves for the player or
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J. Martin
intensity curves for dramatic events and aesthetic elements like music and sound,
emotion curves can be plotted—both across dramatic units like levels and the game
as a whole—to balance emotions from all three classes very precisely in terms of class
(fear, pity, and fiero), type (specific emotions from each class), and intensity.!
These curves, in turn, can be integrated into the dramatic structure with a com-
patibility scheme that is essentially Aristotelian, with the added fiero class to account
for emotions attached to interactive play. The story development arc with its dramatic
turning points and escalations connects to the fear class as the dramatic situation
players can see themselves in. The character development arc with its journey-like
structure connects to the pity class as a progression of dramatic trials and atonements
players can empathize with (via hero NPCs) or relate to (via the player character
through shared basic human experiences around initiation and transformation). The
player development arc with its progression of physical, cognitive, and empathic chal-
lenges, finally, connects to the fiero class through the players’ actions and decisions,
dramatically represented and expressed by the player avatar.!
Attaching emotions from the three emotional classes to the three development arcs
and plotting them across the game and its dramatic units in interesting and testable
ways during development solves several design problems. The model does not privi-
lege or disadvantage any one development arc with respect to emotional experiences;
it solves the agency problem and makes the emotions from the pity class fully avail-
able for the player; and it allows for playtesting setups that can test, measure, and
tune the emotional player experience precisely and eectively. !
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